Tobacco volumes decline in China for the first time in two decades and bring down global volumes

Francesca Washtell
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China is the world's largest tobacco market (Source: Getty)

Smokers in China stubbing out their cigarettes helped the world's largest tobacco market shrink last year, while Western Europe enjoyed growth.

China consumed almost 60bn fewer cigarettes in 2015. As the Asian powerhouse accounted for around 45 per cent of global total volumes, this drove the worldwide total down 2.1 per cent to 5.5 trillion sticks, according to research on the global tobacco industry released today by Euromonitor International.

Excluding the Chinese market, global volumes declined 1.8 per cent on 2014 volumes. More than half (52.1 per cent) of the Chinese male population are smokers, according to Euromonitor. That's compared to only 2.7 per cent of women there, and 20.4 per cent worldwide.

The downward spiral in China was driven by a wholesale excise rise from five per cent to 11 per cent, increased government control on production and greater health awareness in some regions. Last year would not be a one-off for the Chinese market, which is now projected to lose about five per cent of its volumes between 2015 and 2020, Euromonitor added.

Growth in Europe

In Western Europe, however, volume growth was positive at just under one per cent as economies recovered and "outswitching to illicit, other tobacco products (OTP) and vaping lessened".

However, this could become a historical phenomenon, Euromonitor warned. Tightening regulation in the form of legislation introduced this year such, as the EU's Tobacco Products Directive, could ensure that even the modest expansion registered last year is curtailed in future.

Read more: Plain packaging: New UK cigarette rules are "plain crazy"

The only other region to record positive volume growth last year was the Middle East and Africa, where emerging markets grew by around 2.5 per cent. Australasia, Latin America and Eastern Europe registered volumes dissipating by close to five per cent, while Russia - the world's second largest market - had a challenging year in which is lost six per cent of volumes, mostly driven by the illicit trade.

The country with the highest smoking percentage of adult population, at 40.8 per cent in 2015, was Greece.

Shane MacGuill, head of tobacco research at Euromonitor International, said:

Like the ebbing of a fading tradition, 2015 cigarette volumes declined in China - the world's largest and heretofore one of the last remaining growth markets - delivered the defining narrative of the year in global tobacco.

2015 was largely a tale of regions switching established roles. Asia Pacific, dragged down by China, recorded a decline of 2.5 per cent while Western Europe - for the first time in several years - saw positive volume growth as economies there recovered and outswitching to illicit, OTP and vapour products lessened.

Vaping market slows

The global vapour products market "slowed substantially" in 2015, but the market still recorded an increase of 21 per cent to reach $8bn (£5.6bn).

Read more: Promote e-cigarettes widely as substitute for smoking, study urges

Euromonitor estimates there were around 30m regular sole or dual users of vapour products last year, while the US and the UK were the largest markets.

Although triple digit growth rates may have evaporated, more than half the markets covered grew by more than 20 per cent in value terms.

However, regulation was also flagged as a "real looming issue" for vapour products, with the Tobacco Products Directive in Europe and stricter rules in the US "likely to dampen growth in these key markets".